– Comrade Sheela
[Comrade Sheela, President of Nari Mukti Sangh (NMS), was born in a poor Adivasi family. From 1974 till the time of her arrest in 2006, for more than three decades she worked tirelessly to build the revolutionary women’s movement in Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha and Bengal. She particularly concentrated her efforts to organise the Jharkhandi Adivasi women who are forced to spend their lives in very adverse conditions undergoing extreme forms of oppression, exploitation and domination. It was because of the efforts she and her comrades made that NMS could expand to Bihar, Jharkhand, North Chhattisgarh, Bengal and Delhi.
NMS is among the most prominent organisations in the country today working among Adivasi and rural women. Comrade Sheela’s contribution to the development of this organisation is crucial. She inspired women’s struggles for Jal-Jangal-Jamin-Izzat and for liberation from exploitation, oppression and patriarchy. The state arrested and mercilessly tortured her, foisted false cases on her. At the age of fifty, she is being deprived of even the basic medical care and medicines in the prison. Bail has been denied to her. Even when she is released on bail in some cases, she is being immediately rearrested from the prison gate itself on some other case.
Thus, she is being continuously tortured in Giridih Jail and harassed by the state by implicating her in series of false cases. Therefore, it becomes a responsibility of each and every person in the country who aspires for women’s liberation to demand the immediate and unconditional release of Comrade Sheela. She has written this article in Hindi narrating the process of her development as an activist of the revolutionary women’s movement, about the conditions of women prisoners and their difficult life in the jail, and about the oppressive character of the state machinery. We present this article with the hope that you will come forward to demand and struggle for the release of Comrade Sheela.]
I received my initial inspiration to struggle for woman’s liberation from Com. Bhakti dada (popularly known as ‘Laal Mashalchi’ – a leading proponent of revolutionary thought and movement in Dhanbad- Giridih region). He was a great teacher that showed the path of woman’s liberation. From 1972-73 itself, he used to keep me informed about the important political developments. It’s the women who work from dawn to dusk. But they have no right over anything. Starting from 1974, while staying at my home I used to visit the villages organising the working women. I used to visit villages like Takipur, Fatehpur, Bandojor, etc.
Initially I had to withstand a lot of abuse hurled at me by the anti-social and lumpen elements. The landlord’s agents used to come to my home to threaten my family, warning them not to allow me to visit the villages on organizational work. Initially, I used to gather women and men in meetings and talk about feudal exploitation-domination by landlords and moneylenders as well as about the problems faced by women. For instance, we discussed how women performed back-breaking labour from morning to night but their labour was never recognised, nor were they allowed to have rights equal to men.
Women in the present society or in the family are not treated as equals but are viewed as inferiors. Women are thrown out of home by her husband and his family at the smallest pretext or mistake, depriving her of everything. She is not even allowed to carry with her the children she has mothered. I used to tell them that the reason for this is that the big landlords and the big capitalists make us work but they become the owners of all the wealth we produce. Women from poor families have to struggle merely to gather two square meals a day for their household by putting hard labour along with the entire family. This tradition has been continuing for ages. The rule of private property is in operation in the society. I used to educate the vast masses about this in the meetings. When the people started to understand, the struggle for higher wages was started in 1976-77.
The first protest march was taken out in Bodapahri. Thousands of women and men participated in it. In this way the movement gradually grew. Wages were increased to some extent as a result. In 1979-80, a struggle was launched for increasing the wages of the tendu-leaf workers. Previously the contractors used to pay very meager wages – Rs.5-6 ‘pola’ for each bundle of a hundred leaves. The movement started from Maniadah. From there it started to expand and the wages were also increased. By 2006 the wages increased to Rs.40-45 ‘pola’ per bundle. If a worker was injured in a work-related accident,the contractor now had to bear the expenses of his treatment, and if a worker died, his family started to receive compensation from the contractor. Nari Mukti Sangh was formed in a conference in the year 1990 in Talekocha village under Peertand police station limits of Giridih district which was attended by nearly 200 women participants from many blocks of Giridih, Dhanbad and Hazaribagh districts like Peertand, Nimiaghat, Dumri, Vishnugarh and Simria. The conference elected a seven-member executive committee of the organization, including its president, secretary and treasurer. International Women’s Day was observed on the third day of the conference on 20 March 1990 at Madhuban in Peertand block of Giridih district. A rally and public meeting was conducted on the occasion which was attended by more than 5,000 people.
The public meeting called upon women to get organized to fight against the exploitation, oppression and atrocities to which they were subjected. It was also stated that International Women’s Day was the occasion to take pledge for the liberation of women, because women have faced exploitation and domination for ages. Unity is required to bring this to an end. From that period, 8 March is being regularly observed as International Women’s Day in this region. Since 1990, it has been observed in various villages, towns and other settlements in which thousands of women from the rural areas alone participated. Preparations in the form of propaganda and publicity for successfully conducting the event start two months in advance.
Months of campaigning takes place for the Women’s Day programmes in cities like Giridih, Dhanbad, Ranchi and Patna in particular, which are attended by fifty to sixty thousand people. The administration became furious noticing such mobilisation and has not allowed us to celebrate International Women’s Day in the urban areas since 2006. It is now being observed in a decentralised way in the villages and small settlements. This has had a very good impact on the people and the media too reports these programmes with prominence. Moreover, we organized a seminar on the problems faced by Adivasi women on 16-17 March 2006 in Ranchi on the occasion of International Women’s Day. The main theme of the seminar was ‘Age old Adivasi Rights over Jal-Jangal-Zameen and Present Displacement’. Women intellectuals from Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Asom, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Delhi etc. participated in the seminar.
The audience numbered almost one thousand. After successfully concluding the two-day seminar, a massive rally was taken out from Patel Bhavan on 18 March 2006. The rally passed through the busy thoroughfares of Ranchi and ended at Jaipal Singh Stadium where it culminated into a public meeting, attended by five to six thousand people. The entire programme concluded successfully. The administration started to lose sleep over the holding of these programmes. It started to put a large number of women social activists in prison after arresting them on trumped-up charges. This so-called democracy is completely blind. It talks of women’s liberation while itself being in the dark and in a context when extreme forms of exploitation of women are on the rise. The talk of various political parties about ensuring 33% reservation for women is pure humbug.
Our main aim is to move from democracy towards socialism and from socialism towards communism. Women’s liberation is possible only in socialism. The activists of Nari Mukti Sangh are engaged in political work by adhering to our five basic slogans – freedom, democracy, equal rights, women’s liberation and socialism. Lathikata police of Odisha arrested me on 7 October 2006 on my way to Rourkela when I was returning from Odisha after discussing some matters with the activists of Nari Mukti Sangh in that state. I was lodged in Rourkela jail for 9 months and 11 days. After I got bail, I was brought to Chaibasa jail on 12 July 2007. I spent 2 years, 7 months and 8 days there. As soon as I was acquitted in that case, Giridih police arrested me on 9 March 2010 and put me in Giridih jail. It has been five months in Giridih jail.
I fail to understand in what way is it a crime to talk about women’s liberation or to work for women’s literacy so much so that I am being forced to undergo this torturous imprisonment? What is it that I wish to suggest to the women activists working for women’s liberation? I wish to say that women have played a major role in running the society even before the society was divided into classes. They are still playing this great role. History tells us that it was women who in ancient times discovered grains and food as well as herbs and medicines. At that time women and men had equal status in society. After the society was divided into two classes and private property emerged, all the rights enjoyed by women were taken away. I urge women to fight for reclaiming those rights. These rights can be won only through prolonged ideological and practical struggles. The question of women’s liberation is connected to class struggle. As a suggestion to the activists of Nari Mukti Sangh, I request you all to internalise this fact.
Sheela (From Giridih jail)